Steve Leone, Associate Editor, RenewableEnergyWorld.com
November 16, 2011 | 40 Comments
BERLIN, N.H. -- Drive deep enough into the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and you'll be on your way. Continue far enough past the ski resorts that make the region famous, and you'll head straight for some of the most rugged peaks in North America. Stay close enough to the unforgiving Androscoggin River, and you'll soon see the sign.
"Welcome to Berlin, New Hampshire: The City That Trees Built.”
It’s then that you’ll realize that this struggling city doesn’t take failure easily. And giving up? It’s just not the way they do business.
So when the city set out on a course to rebuild itself, it once again turned to the dense forests that long ago defined this community. For the 10,000 residents of Berlin, the cornerstone of the revitalization is a 75-megawatt biomass power plant that will by 2013 sprout from the ashes of the city’s historic paper mill.
Yes, it is renewable energy. But it has always been about more than that. It’s about jobs — 400 during the two years of construction, 40 permanent positions at the plant itself once it opens and about 200 more year-round to supply the wood needed to generate power. It’s also about the tax base that will grow because of this deal. Cate Street Capital’s $275 million project will bring to the region an estimated $40 million in annual wages, fuel procurement and purchased goods. And over the life of the project, the Burgess Biopower Plant will pay Berlin $34 million in new property taxes as well as $9 to $10 million in the sale of renewable energy credits.
To those involved, this was always about more than deal-making and financing. This project was different than most from the start. Usually, large-scale developments start with a big idea, and they slowly, if ever, work their way to the highest levels of government. In Berlin, state leaders — from the economic commissioner to the head of the state’s dominant utility to the governor himself — saw the potential for the plant. They understood it was a project that could lift a town. They believed it was an industry that could replace the now-defunct paper mills. And they saw it as the vehicle that would return Berlin to its heyday.
Yet, they also knew they were in for a fight.
In the beginning
To understand Berlin, you must first understand the intersection of small towns and big industries.
The solitary smokestack visible from the heart of downtown is today viewed as a relic of the city’s history. The close-knit neighborhoods, the churches, the schools, the baseball field — they all grew up in the shadow of that boiler. In many ways, they were there because of that boiler.
Today, the property has been picked clean, its buildings and industrial machinery sold as scraps. But the boiler and smokestack remain, thanks to people like Carl Belanger, a longtime superintendent of the boiler who understood its importance to the town, and its ability to help it forge a new identity.
Mills have been at the site on Community Street since the 1850s. The original paper mill drew other paper mills, which eventually attracted a railroad, which brought immigrants from all over the world eager to find work in the burgeoning area. Mostly, the new workers moved south from Quebec, bringing with them their French language and strong work ethic. By 1930, the town had more than 20,000 residents, thousands of which were employed directly at the mills. The rest of the town owed its existence to the thriving paper industry.
Decades later, though, the town began its long, slow decline. Mills shut down, residents were laid off, workers and their families moved on. By 2006, Community Street was empty for the first time in more than 150 years. Berlin’s economy was depressed and the city was in need of a new strategy.